BOSTON - Doctors suspected that cocaine killed Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis in 1993, but they were thwarted by actions by his family and a "dismissive" policy toward drugs by the NBA, the Wall Street Journal reported today.
At issue was concern for his reputation and the financial interests of his family and the team, the newspaper said.
While not citing any direct evidence of drug use, doctors involved in Lewis' diagnosis, treatment and autopsy told the paper they suspected cocaine damaged his heart, causing him to collapse during a 1993 playoff game.
But they could not test the Celtics captain for drugs because Lewis initially refused, and Lewis had not been tested recently by the NBA because league policies prevented the testing of veterans without reasonable cause, the Journal said. Lewis denied using drugs.
"What is undeniable: Cocaine was a central, explosive issue for the doctors, the Lewis family, the Celtics and the pathologists who conducted his November 1993 autopsy - an issue that became untouchable because Mr. Lewis was a basketball superstar," the newspaper said.
The Celtics responded by threatening to file a $100 million lawsuit against the reporter, the Wall Street Journal and its parent company, Dow Jones and Co. Inc.
"The story was written with complete disregard for the truth," the team said in a statement. "The Celtics are saddened by the vicious attack on Reggie Lewis and his family."
Lewis' widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, denied today that he refused to take a drug test and said he didn't use drugs. "He was a model citizen. He was kind and caring, and this is the way I'll remember him and I encourage everybody to do the same," she said at a news conference at the Celtics' offices.
NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said the Journal's story "is based entirely on speculation and has no real factual basis."
"Furthermore, there is no conceivable way that the NBA's anti-drug program had anything to do with the issue of whether Reggie Lewis was tested or could have been tested upon his admission to the hospital," Granik said.
Lewis' coach and a teammate said they knew nothing about the reported cocaine use.
"To my knowledge, seeing Reggie on a regular basis, I would be shocked," to learn that he had used cocaine, said Celtics coach Chris Ford.
Teammate Dee Brown called the Wall Street Journal article "a bunch of crap."
Lewis was clean "in every way possible," Brown said.
"A lot of people just knew Reggie as a basketball player, but the guys on the team knew him off the court," he said. "For something like this to come out to just tarnish an image, it doesn't even have to be true. Just to throw that bone out there so people think about it, I think that's not right at all."
Shortly after Lewis' death, Dave Gavitt, then-Celtics senior executive vice president, doubted that Lewis had used the drug.
In a long report, the Journal said part of the answer as to why a treatable heart ailment ended in tragedy could lie in "the willingness of family members, lawyers, Celtics officials and some doctors to sidestep the possible cause of Mr. Lewis collapse."
A drug scandal - especially coming after the death of Len Bias of a cocaine overdose in 1986, a day after being drafted by the Celtics - would be potentially damaging to the NBA and the Celtics.
$15 million in insurance
Then, there were the financial interests.
There was insurance coverage of more than $15 million that could be paid to the Lewis family and the Celtics only if there was no link to drugs. The Journal quoted a doctor who consulted on the autopsy as saying that a lawyer for Lewis' family threatened to sue if anything came out about drugs.
A lawyer for Lewis' family denied the allegation, the article said.
The autopsy did not reveal evidence of cocaine, which would be difficult to detect after more than three days, and without other evidence of drug use it could not be listed as a cause of death, the doctors said.
The Journal also reported that there "was the more specific danger that such a scandal would interfere with a crucial business deal the Celtics were negotiating at that time."
Collapsed in playoff game
Lewis, 27, was the Celtics captain and leading scorer when he collapsed during a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets in Boston Garden on April 29, 1993. The next day, he entered Boston's New England Baptist Hospital for a battery of tests.
Printouts from a test that illuminates how blood moves through the heart prominently showed three black patches - dead spots - on the left ventricle. Because of Lewis' age and physical condition, Dr. Charles Munn, the hospital's staff radiologist, and Dr. Thomas Nessa, Baptist Hospital's cardiologist, considered cocaine as being involved.
Drug policy prohibited tests
The NBA's drug policy, however, does not allow its veteran players to be tested for drugs without probable cause. The Journal said these "dismissive policies regarding drugs may have affected human behavior and medical procedure in a fatal fashion."
On Sunday, Lewis' third day in the hospital, a team of top doctors met and went over the test results. Shortly after the doctors' assessments were related to Lewis and his wife, the player checked himself out of Baptist Hospital and was admitted to nearby Brigham and Women's, where he underwent additional tests.
On July 27, 1993, while shooting baskets at Brandeis University, Lewis collapsed and died.
The newspaper said Lewis' death couldn't have come at a worse time for the publicly traded company that owns the NBA team, the Celtics Limited Partnership. According to the Journal, the partnership found itself with a capital deficit of $28.1 million in the summer of 1993.
The preliminary autopsy found that Lewis' heart was "abnormal, enlarged and extensively scarred" and that "preliminary drug screenings show no evidence of drug abuse."
On Nov. 19, nearly four months after Lewis died, a death certificate was filed in Waltham listing the cause of death as adenovirus 2, a common virus that causes the common cold, that led to inflammation of the heart, widespread scarring of tissue and, ultimately, a fatal cardiac arrest.
Other doctors found scarring
Two other doctors who examined the heart, however, said they found scarring that they described as consistent with cocaine damage, the Journal reported. "The adenovirus 2 finding was wildly improbable," said Dr. Jeffrey Isner, the sole cardiologist who consulted on the autopsy.
"It's more than just very flimsy as a cause of death," said Dr. Jangu Banatvala, a London researcher who the paper said is one of the world's experts on heart viruses. "There's simply no hard science, no evidence," linking the virus to the condition that killed Lewis.
Dr. Stanton Kessler, the deputy medical examiner, told the Journal that he stood by his findings. Kessler's office said today that he was not available for comment.
When a group of eminent cardiac pathologists met in Boston last year to discuss the issue of sudden death and athletes' hearts, they asked Kessler to discuss his conclusions in Lewis' death.
"Looking down, (Dr. Kessler) told the group there had been legal threats made by the Lewis family and that he was bound by Massachusetts law not to discuss the case," the Journal reported.